Henry Srebrnik: Canadian Jewish Congress Future Uncertain

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Courtesy Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives, Montreal

Canadian Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly, Montreal, March 1919

The Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), the once-proud and venerable “parliament of Canadian Jewry,” has become a shadow of its former self.

Soon it will become just another agency under the aegis of a yet-unnamed organization that will supervise most of the country’s national Jewish organizations.

Originally created in 1919, the CJC soon became moribund. Only with the rise of new threats of fascism and anti-Semitism at home and abroad after 1933, was the Congress again reconstituted.

Congress became a permanent institution, an “umbrella” comprising a large number of affiliated Jewish organizations, and a pinnacle in Canadian Jewish political development. From 1939 to 1962 its national president and most powerful figure was Samuel Bronfman.

In the 1930s, the CJC was concerned mainly with monitoring the rise of various anti-Semitic and pro-fascist movements, and attempting, unsuccessfully, to facilitate the entry into Canada of Jewish refugees escaping Europe.

Following the Second World War, the Congress dealt with the tragedy of the Holocaust, and was focused on lifting the barriers to immigration by the European survivors.

It also welcomed, and provided support for, the new state of Israel.

The “golden age” of Congress was probably between the 1950s and 1970s, when it championed human rights and social justice, and was instrumental in lobbying governments to abolish discriminatory laws in employment, housing, and other impediments to the full participation of Jews in Canadian life.

It also monitored and fought, after much prodding by Holocaust survivors, the resurgence of neo-Nazism in the mid-1960s, and it later applied pressure on the Canadian government to prosecute war criminals living in the country.

At the time, as historian Gerald Tulchinsky has remarked, it “effectively embraced Jewish organizations of nearly all political and social stripes in the country and was recognized as the voice of the entire community.”

By the 1960s, though, Jewish federations were becoming established in the major Jewish centres; they not only provided services and raised funds for domestic and Israel programs, but also assumed direction for community planning.

They solidified their position in the 1970s, as all funding decisions regarding community money came under their control – including the operating budget of Congress.

The federations became the crucial link between Canadian Jews and their governments on matters relating to their communities.

Since Congress had always viewed itself as the focus for community policy-making, its dominant role began to diminish.

So by the turn of the 21st century, the Canadian Jewish Congress was definitely no longer “the only game in town.”

It co-existed, sometimes uneasily, with a number of municipal Federations and other Jewish organizations.

The Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA), founded in 2004, became the principal advocacy, oversight and co-coordinating body for the Congress, the Canada-Israel Committee, the Quebec-Israel Committee, National Jewish Campus Life, and the University Outreach Committee.

This year the CIJA has formally incorporated these groups, including Congress, to create one advocacy organization.

The new, as yet unnamed, agency “will continue the work of all the agencies that it is succeeding or that are being folded into it, including the whole range of traditional Congress activities,” Shimon Fogel, the CEO of the CIJA, has stated.

Fogel said the Canadian Jewish Congress leaders were involved in the process.

“This isn’t a hostile takeover.”

Maybe not, but the Congress, despite its glorious past, still faces an uncertain future.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political studies at UPEI.

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